It is not just Brazil’s players who need counselling for their nerves, it is the whole country. They beat Colombia to set up a semi-final between the nation that has won more World Cups than any other and the greatest tournament team in the competition’s history. For Luiz Felipe Scolari it will stir memories of Yokohama 2002 and Brazil’s fifth World Cup.
For everyone else, it was a game to be watched between your fingers. Brazil, who had been two goals up, saw Colombia’s 38-year-old captain, Mario Yepes, bundle the ball home only to be ruled offside and then James Rodriguez convert a penalty for his sixth goal of the tournament after Julio Cesar had brought down Carlos Bacca. Had David Luiz not been the covering defender, Brazil would have been without their goalkeeper for the remainder of this game and the semi-final.
As it is, Scolari will have to take on the Germans without his captain, Thiago Silva, who stupidly got himself suspended and there was the sight of Neymar being taken off on a stretcher in the closing moments that will fill a hundred back pages. The statue of Our Lady of Caravaggio that Brazil’s manager keeps in his dressing room will have to be prayed very hard to.
Given the colour of both teams’ shirts, the stadium was awash with yellow, making the Castelao resemble a vast Liberal Democrat rally, although with rather more prospect of final victory.
The home crowds have been criticised for being rather too white and rather too middle-class to be representative of Brazil’s population, particularly in Fortaleza, which was built on sugar and slavery. However, they created a frenzy of noise and expectation almost an hour before the national anthem crashed out. And when Silva put the ball in the net seven minutes later the Castelao screeched like Shea Stadium on hearing the first bars of “Love Me Do”.
Given all the talk of how the Selecao were suffocating under the weight of a nation’s demands, Scolari would have craved the early goal. It arrived from Neymar’s corner that, aimed for the head of either Fred or David Luiz, missed both and was directed into the Colombian net off Silva’s thigh. If that makes it sound like a fluke, it was not. Silva’s control as he ran in front of Carlos Sanchez to steer the corner home was rather better than that of the average centre-half.
As someone who had recovered from tuberculosis to play professional football, Silva had been especially angered by the array of former Brazil players who had queued up to condemn the mental weakness of Scolari’s squad in the wake of reports they had been seeing a psychologist.
Twenty minutes into a frenetic first half, Colombia finally broke free with three against one. Juan Cuadrado, who had provided more assists than anyone else in this World Cup, played what would have been a familiar ball to Rodriguez, Silva intercepted.
Seen through the suffocating prism of the Brazil training camp in the hills above Rio de Janeiro, the Colombian squad that hitherto had won all its games with alarming ease might have seemed a deeply menacing threat. And yet they appeared unnerved by the grand theatre the Castelao had become. In a compelling first half that saw both teams flailing at each other, only Cuadrado, who sent one shot whistling past Julio Cesar’s post, lived up to his billing.
For all Jose Pekerman’s work in rebranding Colombia from a team of glittering individuals who fell apart at the first sign of resistance into something altogether tougher, it had been 23 years since they last beat Brazil. England have a better record against Germany and this always seemed a psychological hurdle Colombia would be hard pressed to overcome.
As he sat in the Castelao’s press room on Thursday, telling anyone who did not like the way he was running the team that they could “go to hell”, Scolari predicted this would be a very different game from the round of 16 tie in Belo Horizonte. Games against Chile, Uruguay and, especially Argentina, too often “became wars”, he said. This would be no war.
Big Phil was, however, not about to take any chances. Fernandinho roughed up Pekerman’s two most obvious threats, Cuadrado and Rodriguez, while somehow escaping a yellow card. At the other end, Hulk twice forced David Ospina into reaction saves.
Tactically, the game that began with Scolari dropping Dani Alves at right-back in favour of Maicon, who had been as much an embarrassment at Manchester City as Jo, was something of a mess. If there were formations, they disintegrated and nothing summed up the match better than Luiz dispossessing Teofilio Gutierrez near his own penalty area and then running forward in a mad, frantic dash that finished deep in the Colombian half, where he was almost wrestled down by Cristian Zapata.
It was nothing at all compared to the run Paris St Germain’s most expensive defender launched into midway through the second half that finished with him kneeling by the corner flag pointing two fingers at the night sky that, at that moment, was alive with bats and flashbulbs.
There has been plenty said about the lack of fantasy in Scolari’s teams but the free-kick delivered from 25 yards that curled and dipped beneath Ospina’s crossbar was the equal of anything Rivellino produced in the immortal World Cup of 1970.
There had been, however, plenty more wrestling after the interval as Cuadrado, having been repeatedly fouled, bundled Neymar over. The free-kick came to nothing but it produced something that may have profound consequences for the semi-final. As Ospina went to punt the ball up field, Silva knocked it out of his hand and received a booking that would ensure he would be missing against Germany. If he were watching the game with his familiar cigarette in the team hotel, Joachim Löw would have stubbed it out in the knowledge that his array of attacking midfielders might play havoc with Brazil’s defence. Scolari simply stood, hands on hips.
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